Pentecost 7A: Climbing Jacob’s Ladder

Readings

  • Genesis 28:10-22
  • Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24
  • Romans 8:12-25
  • Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
You can find the readings, in the CEB and NRSV translation, by clicking this link.

Sermon

This week’s sermon adapted and borrowed, with permission from Pastor Shannon Sullivan who wrote this sermon for Presbury United Methodist Church, 22 September 2013.

Please pray with me,
Patient Teacher, who comes to us in dreams and oracles,
come to us today in our worship as well.
Speak anew your promises to us;
help us to know that you are always beside us. Amen.

At the suggestion of a colleague in ministry who helped me put this sermon together, we added a few verses to today’s first reading; you may have noticed that it was a little longer than what you have in the bulletin.  There is a reason for that addition.

Jacob is now a grown man.  He talked his brother Esau out of his birthright over a bowl of lentil stew and with the help of his mother tricked his father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing that was reserved for his elder brother Esau.  When Esau arrived at his father’s bedside to receive the blessing promised to him, it was too late.  In anger, Esau threatens to kill his brother.

So, we find that at the beginning of this week’s reading, Jacob is running away.  This may have been the very first that Jacob has left home; Jacob is described as a quiet man who preferred to stay close to the tents. He has the consent of his mother and father, and a task to make it seem as though he is moving towards Haran with purpose, but really, he is running away.

His heart may very well have been in his throat, and he may be a might bit jumpy, looking over his shoulder constantly to see if he can make out his brother’s figure on the horizon.  The sun sets, and, as though to help him sleep a little less deeply, to help keep him on the edge of wakefulness should he need to defend himself— he chooses a stone for his pillow.

Sometimes, when we speak of some of these old stories, we neglect to talk about ethics or to ask the questions that come to mind – preferring instead to allow the narrator to move us along the story.  I admit that I am oftentimes too much like the young boy in The Princess Bride who interrupts his grandfather’s tale with questions about the content of the story.  There, Jacob got the blessing, and in a rather clever way – but I want to ask: why there was only one blessing to be had, or why does it seem that God goes along with the deception?  Was Jacob lying on that cold hard ground wondering about the messiness of the situation: of Esau’s rage and disappointment, of Jacob’s own fear and jumpiness?

Here, we have a man, exhausted from his journey but also exhausted from fear and apprehension, from thinking his brother, or an enemy, may be waiting around every turn.  His past is filled with conflict, and his future is uncertain. So he lays down his head to steal what bit of rest he safely can, and he dreams.

It is a strange dream. A stairway, or ladder, or ramp, something like that, extends from the ground to the sky, an enormous structure, and a busy one too, for angels are ascending and descending it, moving between heaven and earth.

Dreams are interesting phenomena. They are times when your defenses are down, when your subconscious often runs wild, and when reason does not reign. They can easily become vehicles for God to break into the hearts of those like Jacob who spend their waking hours too busy with fears, plans, and life matters. And that is just what God does here.

This dream is Jacob’s first direct encounter with God.  Important, because Jacob has never named God as his own, saying instead “the Lord your God” when speaking to his father back inside the tent.  But God hasn’t given up on Jacob.  If Jacob won’t see God when he is awake, then God will come to him in his sleep.

Jacob barely has time to register this strangeness in his dream, though, before God speaks to him.  But we do.  So, let’s talk a little bit about the dream.

That staircase/ladder is a busy place – messengers of God, angels, constantly moving to and fro.  It is a captivating vision.  One that appears to be so well known that Jesus speaks about it in the Gospel of John when he is describing to Nathanael and Philip about the things that they will see when they follow him: “I assure you that you will see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One.” [John 1:51, CEB]

On the Human One.  This is one of those mind-blown moments that the young people talk about.

This ladder/staircase shows us a powerful gift that comes alongside God’s spoken promise to Jacob.

It shows us God’s movement over the world, a constant movement.

As much as we may like to think it, God is not just sitting up on some heavenly throne watching us while eating some popcorn.  No matter how many ways we are shown in scripture that God is often very physically present with us,  and no matter all our knowledge otherwise, humanity has made a habit of putting God far away up in heaven, watching down on us and only reaching in to help occasionally.

Or, we think that we have to go to God, that we only find God if we go to a special place, or a church, or whatever.

But that is not how God works.

God stands beside Jacob in the dream, much in the same way that God often came and interacted with his grandfather Abraham, and his father Isaac.  And, God speaks blessing on Jacob, the promise that seems tied to the birthright Isaac has given to him.

The words are familiar to those of us who remember Abraham’s story: a promise of land, offspring as numerous as the dust of the earth, a blessing not just for himself but for every family of earth.

But there is another part of the promise, a new piece: “I am with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you.” [Genesis 28:15, CEB]

God has offered life and a home to Abraham and Isaac, and true to the human condition, these two stumble time and again.  This time, as God offers life and a home to Jacob, God also tells him that he will not be forsaken.  These are powerful words.  These are words of deep grace to a man on the run.

And they are also powerful words of grace for us because they show us, once again, how much God loves each of us to keep coming to us, waking and sleeping.

God doesn’t give up on us, God doesn’t wait for us to come to God.

When things go wrong: when birthrights are stolen, when brothers are divided, when we are alone and fearful, when we are too busy, God doesn’t say, “Let me go find some other people to be my new chosen people. Let me find someone else who can receive this blessing and actually be a blessing to others, since it looks like right now, this person isn’t much of a blessing to anyone else.”

When it looks like we’ve forgotten all about God, and when it looks like we are incapable of being a blessing to others, God doesn’t just shrug and go about creating a new kind of creature that would be better at this whole goodness and love thing.

Rather, God comes to us.

God is on that ladder.  Back to that previously mentioned powerful gift — the author of the Gospel of John argues that God’s very own self in Jesus is the ladder.  God is encouraging and stirring the movement between heaven and earth, stirring up more possibilities for freedom from sin and oppression, more possibilities for love to reign in this world.

As is often the case with beautiful things and beautiful dreams, the morning breaks and we wake up to our various realities.  Jacob is no different.  Jacob wakes up from the dream.

The first thing he acknowledges is that God has always been with him, he just didn’t know it.  He recognizes the place where he slept as a house of God, and names it the gate of heaven.  He builds an altar.  And then he makes a promise to that relationship, even if seems to some to be more of a bargain really.

Still, God continued to go to Jacob, through a hard life and even harder journey back home many, many years later – even wrestled with him in the wee hours of the dark morning, and gave Jacob a new name – Israel.

God didn’t give up on Abraham, God didn’t give up on Jacob, and God doesn’t give up on us.

My hope is that when we wake from our own beautiful dreams, we too will realise that God has always been with us – even when we didn’t know it.  And when we pray, “on earth as it is in heaven” like we do at least every Sunday, we acknowledge that we are praying to be a part of that busy movement on the ladder – that we will receive those angels, those messengers of God, in whatever form they appear, with open arms.  And, if we mess up, if we stray away, God will come to us again, over and over again, offering us heaps of blessing and love.

Let us pray:
Creator, lover, and tender of all things,
in you we live and move and have our being:
You alone have been our help and our guide,
you alone are our strength,
and you alone will be our rest and our welcome.
We turn to you as the source of life;
in your depths we find wisdom,
in your heights we find joy,
in your presence we find peace.
Draw us near,
so that we might see as you see,
love as you love,
and follow your ways.  Amen.


This week’s image is entitled, “El sueño de Jacob [Jacob’s Dream],” created by Jusepe de Ribera, in 1639.  The image is public domain.  You can find out more about the painting here, and the artist here.  The image has been modified for the purposes of this blog.

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